ISU says the school isn’t required to tally complaints against coaches

By: - March 16, 2023 5:49 pm

Iowa State University has refused to disclose the number of complaints against coaches, saying it is not required count them in response to a records request. (Stock photo via Canva)

The Iowa Public Information Board expressed concern Thursday that Iowa State University won’t disclose the number of complaints against coaches, but then dismissed a citizen’s complaint on the matter.

In January, Elizabeth Pirotte filed a complaint with the board, alleging Iowa State University had violated the state’s Open Records Law.

Pirotte alleged she had filed a formal request with ISU asking for “the number of” informal and formal complaints filed against former ISU women’s soccer coach Tony Minatta, who resigned in October 2019 after six years at the school. Minatta was replaced by Matt Fannon, who has since been the target of complaints alleging verbally abusive behavior.

The university denied Pirotte’s request, arguing the information she sought was protected by federal student-privacy regulations as well as state-law restrictions on the release of information contained in public employees’ personnel files.

The school’s attorney, Michael Norton, told Pirotte that not only are the complaints themselves confidential, but also any “other information that is likely to allow for the identification of individuals making a complaint or who are the subject of a complaint.”

Pirotte then asked the university to disclose the total number of complaints, collectively, that had been filed against ISU’s women’s soccer coaches over an eight-year period.

Norton responded by stating the university has no records that would include such a number. Norton also noted that nothing in Iowa law requires a government agency to create a document in response to a request for information.

University officials have also denied a Des Moines Register records request for complaints against ISU coaches.

IPIB Executive Director Margaret Johnson sided with ISU on the issue, and recently recommended the board dismiss Pirotte’s complaint. She noted that if ISU doesn’t have a specific document that includes the requested statistical information, and if the school isn’t required to create such a document by tallying up the complaints, there is no violation of Iowa law for the board to address.

Complainant calls ISU’s actions “mind boggling”

At Thursday’s IPIB meeting, Pirotte told board members it was “mind boggling” that ISU was citing privacy regulations intended to protect students as a rationale for not disclosing statistics on complaints against ISU staff.

“I feel like this is a very broken system,” she told the board. “This is the last thing they would want released so they hide behind this to protect their own reputation.”

Norton countered that with regard to the women’s soccer coaching staff, “the numbers are so small that if you say a complaint was filed against the staff in these years, then you’re identifying who (the complaint) was filed against.”

He reiterated that regardless of confidentiality laws, there is no existing database or list that compiles complaint information against employees that could then be used to produce the total number of complaints against the coaching staff. “Not to mention that the stuff would be confidential anyway,” he said.

He acknowledged there are university records pertaining to the specifics of complaints against workers but added that Pirotte wants the number of those complaints quantified. He said anything that would point to the mere existence of a complaint “would be a confidential record in and of itself.”

During Thursday’s board meeting, some members expressed concern that ISU was unwilling to disclose even statistical information in response to a citizen’s inquiry.

Norton acknowledged the university, at least in theory, could total up the number of complaints in response to such a request.

“Clearly, I could go in and gather that information and sift through it and make some judgment about what’s an informal complaint, and what’s a formal complaint,” he told the board. “And ultimately – if I had some responsibility to do so – I probably could create such a record. But the public information statute does not require that to occur.”

In response, board members expressed surprise that the school isn’t tracking the number of complaints against staff and suggested that in the future, as a matter of good public policy, it might want to do so.

Board member E.J. Giovannetti told Norton the university’s position “seems to be nontransparent” in terms of public disclosure.

“The system doesn’t even allow me to as a citizen to know whether or not the (school) is getting complaints or not getting complaints,” he said. “It doesn’t settle very well … It just seems to me – at a public educational institution, particularly – that folks ought to know, quite frankly, are they hiring people who get a lot of complaints or not?”

Board member Daniel Breitbarth said he feels university coaches are already “under the microscope” and are the target of many job-performance complaints emanating from disgruntled fans. “Coaches inherently are going to be criticized,” he said.

In response, Giovannetti said there’s a big difference between fans’ complaints and those of students who may feel victimized by a coach’s conduct.

“I understand that if you don’t like a coach’s win-loss record you can make a complaint,” Giovannetti said, “but that’s not the kind of complaint I’m talking about. I’m more concerned about other kinds of complaints.”

The board then voted unanimously to dismiss Pirotte’s complaint.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing.